Teaching Writing in an Age of Misinformation: Q&A with Andrea Lunsford

Andrea Lunsford is emerita professor of English at Stanford University. Her scholarly interests include contemporary rhetorical theory, women and the history of rhetoric, collaboration, style, and technologies of writing. She is the author of Let’s Talk, a new brief composition rhetoric that focuses on listening and civility, in addition to covering the essentials for any writing course: reading, research, style—and writing the genres that college students need to do. Below is an excerpt adapted from the Q&A of a virtual lecture titled “Writing and Rhetoric in an Age of Misinformation” that Lunsford gave to students and instructors. 

Photo by Ron Bolander

What inspired you to look further into the topic of misinformation? What got you looking beyond the headlines and thinking and writing about it?

Andrea Lunsford: Well, it seems like I’ve been thinking about this for most of my life, but it’s taken on such a new urgency in the last five or six years. If you’ve heard me talk, you could probably tell I grew up in the South. Even though I lived in other countries and all over the United States, I still have a twang to my voice. Sometime in my adolescence, I began to realize that people were labeling me in certain ways because of my speech. When I got to graduate school, someone approached me in the second term of my graduate school experience and said, “I need to apologize to you. I didn’t think you were very smart, but now I see you are.” When I asked why he didn’t think I was very smart, he said, “Oh, it’s because of your accent, because of the way you talk.” And that is a form of misinformation: labeling each other in ways that are unfair, unjust, and unnecessary, but based on internalized biases that we have. So that dogged me from the time I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, right into my graduate school career. I began watching out for what people were saying about each other that wasn’t based in any kind of fact.

So, my attention to misinformation comes out of my own lived experience in a way, but I think I became much more attuned to it with the technological revolution, when it became so easy to communicate. Now, you can just click a key and a message will go all over the world… then, boy, “Katy, bar the door!” Labeling other people and putting out misinformation is just so easy to do. It’s become a consuming interest of mine to try to see what we could do to resist this.

What exactly does listening have to do with writing?

AL: Listening purposefully and with an open mind can build empathy and understanding. This kind of listening, identified by Krista Ratcliffe as rhetorical listening, paves the way for student writers and speakers to engage critically and ethically with others—especially those with whom they may disagree.

The ability to stand up and speak out, to get our messages across, is, according to Aristotle, one of two key reasons to know and understand rhetoric. The other reason is for self-defense, to be able to recognize and resist manipulation by others. Today, this ability is perhaps more important than ever before, as we face a tsunami of misinformation and even outright lies every hour of every day. So, it’s important to help students read (and listen) defensively by distinguishing facts from lies and misinformation, evaluating sources, and fact-checking what they read – especially what they read online.

Do you think the problem of people not wanting to listen to each other has gotten worse, or does it just seem that way?

AL: Certainly, people have always had trouble listening to one another. We can go back throughout American history and in fact back to the ancient Greeks and Romans making arguments and know that they were having a hard time listening to each other. What I think makes it seem worse today is that everything is so instantaneous. We have so much information, we have so many opinions – they are overwhelming us and just overpowering us. Part of what makes it difficult to listen is knowing what to listen to with so much coming at us. I’m not sure it’s worse in principle, but in terms of our experience of it, I do think it’s worse.

One good strategy for determining whether information you find online is trustworthy is lateral reading, checking to see if other sites you know and trust are saying the same thing. Could you offer some advice for ways to teach students to read laterally?

AL: Probably the simplest way to engage students in lateral reading is to take a website that you know something about – either it’s very credible or not very credible – and put it up on screen for everyone to look at it together, then read it vertically. First look at what it says about itself. What does the masthead say?  Who’s the sponsor? What do they have to say? Then look to the “About” page and try to sum up what you think about it. And then open another window and do a search for that site, and for its sponsor, and find out what others are saying. And then compare what the site says about itself to what other sites or other people are saying about it.

You can do all that in 10 minutes, 15 at the most, giving the students a chance to do some of the looking on their own. Practice it all as a class together, and students will see how easy it is and how little time it takes. A report from the Stanford History Education Group found that, of a group of “expert” readers including historians, fact-checkers, and Stanford undergraduates, the fact-checkers could most quickly and accurately evaluate whether a site was credible or not. So, to help your students practice these fact-checking skills, I’d just suggest working through a couple of those examples together as a class, and then set students free to do it themselves.

How can we help students conduct respectful discussions and debates in class when they might not all agree?

AL: I feel like we need to teach our students to respect and listen to opinions they might not agree with. I think the best thing to do is to be straightforward and honest with what you’re doing and why. Explain why it is helpful to look at things from as many perspectives as possible, and why it helps us to grow and understand the world we live in. If we can learn to look through the eyes of others and walk in the shoes of others, as well as our own, well – I think most reasonable people will go along with that.

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